MAHONING COUNTY Court video usage grows

Video arraignments give the impression of a 'live via satellite' broadcast.
YOUNGSTOWN -- About 20 people gather in municipal Judge Robert P. Milich's courtroom. From behind the bench he faces an audience of defendants' family members, police officers and the assistant prosecutor.
A Sony TV rests on a television stand in the center of the room, facing the audience.
A man with pale skin, dark tousled hair, crooked teeth and a black eye appears on the screen from the shoulders up, wearing a bright orange jump suit and sitting against a white brick wall. A picture-in-picture of Judge Milich appears at the bottom of the screen.
"Hello today," the judge says.
Greetings exchanged: A short pause ensues before the defendant returns the greeting. The video is sketchy. Judge Milich informs the defendant of his options and asks for his plea on animal cruelty charges.
"Definitely not guilty," the defendant says. "I love my animals."
The assistant prosecutor suggests a bond, the judge grants it, and the arraignment process is over. The defendant on television stands up, moves to his left, and someone else sits down in his place.
In roughly 30 minutes, the judge arraigns four defendants this way. These video arraignments are beginning to pop up in courts across the country, and next in line is the Mahoning County Area Court, Boardman.
Faster, better: Video arraignments give judges a faster way to do their jobs and a safety device that avoids transferring inmates, said Judge Joseph M. Houser of Boardman court.
"Right now we're taking [inmates] from downtown Youngstown and bringing them out, in my case, to Boardman," he said. "So saving that transportation time improves efficiency, it improves on safety for the officers, and it's a better use of manpower and personnel. I think that is a critical thing."
Judge Houser's court is hooked up to begin video arraignments, and he said they should start in the next 30 days. If all goes well, the courts in Austintown, Sebring and Canfield will begin using them shortly thereafter. Judge Milich's court has been using video arraignments since March 10, 2000.
A video arraignment uses cameras and televisions in both the jail and in the courtroom, creating the look and feel of a "live via satellite" interview. The connection to the two rooms uses a dial-up network, and the quality of the video compares with that of an Internet video.
A three-second delay between the two broadcasts generates some pauses in the courtroom, but the system improves the arraignment process in several areas, Judge Milich said.
"We don't have to bring them in to the courtroom, and they're not out in the public," he said. "And it's been tremendous in cost savings because it eliminates security risks. It's especially good for high-risk defendants."
Saves time: Judge Houser said the Boardman police don't have a van, so when there are several prisoners waiting to be arraigned, the police make several trips back and forth, two prisoners at a time.
"That's a lot of manpower to take off the road to transport prisoners," he said. "This way, maybe if we [are] only doing the trials, then the transportation might be only one car as opposed to taking four cars off the road to take them down to Boardman."
Before they started doing the video arraignments, Judge Milich said, cases from holiday weekends filled the courtroom. "We have a small courtroom, and we'd have them sitting on the floor," he said.
One problem: Judge Milich said there was only one time they had a problem with the video. "We had a breakdown in the system," he said. "In that case, I just went down to the jail and did the arraignments."
Judge Houser said he would like to watch the arraignments one more time from the jail end to see what it's like, then try it himself before starting to do actual cases.
Judge Houser said he may have some simulated arraignments set up and have people down in the jail to see how it works. "We kind of want to dip our toe in the water before we ultimately jump in the lake."

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